Losing Weight and Reforming Schools

No System Will Work Unless You Actually Try It

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The phrase 'the system is failing' has become part of what Orwell called 'debased language' that serves as a substitute for serious thinking.

Let me begin talking about the seemingly endless school reform debate with what might appear to be a far-out analogy.

Let's say that John Noshwell is overweight. He finally decides that he's got to shed a few pounds and needs some help to overcome his lack of self-discipline. So one day he goes to sign in at the Downsizing Weight Loss Clinic.

After a thorough consultation that includes a physical and an analysis of his eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, John's counselor tells him that the clinic feels confident it can guarantee that he will lose at least 20 pounds in less than four months if: (1) he will strictly follow the diet that has been prepared for him; (2) he will adhere to the recommended regimen of exercise; and (3) he will attend the weekly support-group and weigh-in sessions.

On his way home, John is elated. He feels he's finally made a start on turning his life around. He's in such a celebratory mood that he stops off to buy a pepperoni pizza, a half-dozen doughnuts, and a pint of Lord Byron's Ecstasy ice cream--all of which he polishes off while transfixed by a "Gilligan's Island" festival on the tube.

With some variation, he repeats this every night. Circumstances are such that he's much too busy to do the recommended exercise, and the cursed support-group sessions conflict with vampire-flick night on the Gothic Cable Network.

After four months, John hits the scales and, to his surprise and chagrin, he finds that far from losing weight he has actually put on about 10 more pounds.

To John, the trip to the clinic was a total waste of time and money down the drain. His conclusion: The system of the Downsizing Weight Loss Clinic has failed; it just doesn't work.

A silly story? How could anyone be so blind? Call it perverse logic if you will, but I always think of my fictional John Noshwell when I hear "experts" talk glibly about "failing schools." "Shut them down," some say. Others advocate reconstitution--clean out the inept administrators and teachers and bring in a new staff from top to bottom.

I admit, of course, that there are a certain number of ineffective teachers and supervisors who should be weeded out or, if possible, brought up to speed. But what I've never, never, never heard is a critic of a so-called failed school maintain that the students en masse have seriously tried the system and that they simply couldn't learn. In other words, the "experts" never ask the basic questions that any teacher would naturally ask: Did the kids attend regularly? Did they do the homework that the teachers assigned? Did they study for the tests? Did they behave in class? Did the "experts" check student notebooks to see how attentive students were?

The bottom line is that without answers to these and other questions there is no basis for damning a school and an entire system.

Moreover, there is a significant amount of evidence that critics are often as illogical as my John Noshwell, that is, they seem oblivious to the fact that vast numbers of students have simply never tried the system.

For probably a multitude of reasons, we have an attendance crisis throughout the country. New Orleans, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, New Haven, San Jose--all currently have or have recently tried anti-truancy programs. According to statistics, Chicago's schools had a 16 percent increase in "chronic truants" in one year alone, between 1993 and 1994. Atlanta's police have reported rounding up as many as 1,300 hooky-playing street wanderers a day. And in recognition of the problem, President Clinton promised the last convention of the National Education Association $10 million in federal dollars to join the battle. An item on a recent 6 o'clock newscast shows what we're up against. In one school in Jersey City, N.J., fewer than half the registered pupils showed up on the first day of class. To what extent are the absentees (and their parents) prepared to "try the system"?

In other words, the experts can't plead that there's a lack of information, particularly since the problem has been with us for a long time. Back in 1983, for example, the New York City board of education released a survey which reported that at least one-third of all high school students were absent too frequently to get a decent education.

The fact is that our schools then and now work for conscientious students. Just check the list of Westinghouse winners and finalists. Like most other teachers, I know of many students who have succeeded so well in our classrooms that they won scholarships to the most prestigious and competitive colleges and have completed advanced and imaginative projects.

The phrase "the system is failing" has become part of what George Orwell called the "debased language" that serves as a substitute for serious thinking. We do have severe problems in education, but they are largely cultural and moral problems, and have little or nothing to do with the real or imagined flaws in the system. If we are to have a serious discussion about turning things around, for one thing, the John Noshwells of education punditry need to shed their rhetorical blinders and face the truth.

Vol. 17, Issue 28, Page 39

Published in Print: March 25, 1998, as Losing Weight and Reforming Schools
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